Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Betty Friedan’s legacy

A few months ago Betty Friedan died on her 85th birthday, 4 February 2006. Friedan was one of the most important feminist activists and writers of the 20th century who changed the way the world looked at women with her most famous book “The Feminine Mystique” written in 1963. Mystique was a landmark work which stated that women were victims of an all-encompassing system of values that urged them to find their fulfilment and identity only through their husbands and children. The book debunked the myth that women were happy only in their family roles.

In 1921, the year after American women won the right to vote, Friedan was born as Bettye Naomi Goldstein in Peoria, Illinois. Friedan called her hometown “the middle of the middle of America”. Her father Harry was a jeweller. Young Bettye's family was comfortably middle-class and Jewish. Her mother Miriam worked for as a women’s pages editor for a local newspaper until her career was ended by married. Miriam suffered from various ailments unti she was forced to run the jewellery business when Harry Friedan became ill. As a result, her own health problems disappeared.

Young Bettye got involved in journalism at college. She went to Smith College, Massachusetts, the largest women’s college in the US. There she edited the college newspaper and she mixed with Marxist and Jewish radicals before graduating in 1942 with highest honours. Then she went to Berkeley for one year before leaving to work for leftist journals. She married Carl Friedan in 1947 and took on his name as well as dropping the second e from Bettye. They had three children and their marriage lasted 22 years until divorce in 1969.

While pregnant with her second son, she was sacked from her role as editor of UE News, the journal of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. When she attended a 15th year reunion of Smith college alumnae, she ran a survey of her classmates. Her article on the survey and how most of them never reached their college potential was rejected by every editor she submitted it to.

She decided to rewrite the article in the form of a book and The Feminine Mystique was born. It was published in 1963 and became an immediate bestseller. In 1966 Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), which was dedicated to achieving equality of opportunity for women. She led the 500,000-person Women's Strike for Equality in New York in 1970, on the 50th anniversary of women winning the right to vote. As a result, she helped found National Women's Political Caucus (1971) which campaigned for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. She wrote The Second Stage in 1981 which assessed the status of the women's movement. By the 1980s feminism had ceased being her primary focus, and she spent her last decades focused on issues of aging, families, work and public policy. The Fountain of Age (1993) covered the psychology of old age and countered the notion that aging means loss and depletion. She published her memoirs Life So Far in 2000.

Friedan was one of the first women to question Sigmund Freud’s theories in relation to femininity. In Chapter 5 of The Feminine Mystique she pointed out how hysteria was a problem of Freud’s time irrelevant to 1960s America. She dismissed ‘penis envy’ as an homme manqué theory based on Freud’s Victorian attitudes. Friedan argued that the feminine mystique itself was elevated by Freudian theory into a scientific religion which ultimately stifled women’s prospects for growth and independence.

She was controversially opposed to gay rights and disliked "equating feminism with lesbianism." In 1969 she coined the term Lavender Menace to describe the threat she believed they posed to the Women’s movement fearing stereotypical “man-hating" lesbians would give many the chance to dismiss the movement's relevance. By 1977 however, she no longer saw them as a threat and pledged her support for the lesbian rights motion at the Women's Conference held in Houston, Texas.

Friedan was known for her abrasive personality. Germaine Greer believed that Friedan had a very high opinion of herself and brooked few disagreements. Greer may be guilty of a snarling envy here but while acknowledging her breakthrough role in women’s liberation, Greer didn’t agree with her ethos: “What Betty saw as sexuality, I saw as the denial and repression of female sexuality.” Others too have taken a revisionist position on The Feminine Mystique. One anonymous thesis on the book gives it plaudits for its groundbreaking and pioneering positions before pointing out 79 statistical deficiencies around women’s status as wives and mothers in the book as well as their participation in higher education and the labour force.

Friedan’s leftwing past has also come in for some criticism. A Smith college professor Daniel Horowitz wrote a book entitled "Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique" in which he questioned her background as a typical suburban housewife. He states her descriptions of suburban life which she described as "a comfortable concentration camp" had more to do with her Marxist hatred for America than with any of her actual experience as a housewife or mother.

The organization she founded, the National Organisation for Women, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Current NOW president Kim Gandy says, "She sparked a movement that is larger and stronger than ever — made up of women who expect equality and equal opportunity for ourselves and our daughters, and the men who stand with us."

In her Washington Post obituary, she was praised by Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation: “(Friedan) was a giant in the 20th century for women and most significantly was a catalyst for change in the American culture…She defined the problem, and then she had the courage to do something about it."

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